-- George Eliot
In his first four seasons in the NHL Joel Ward was one of a class of hockey player who toils largely anonymously, so far as professional athletes go. He was the player who might chip in an occasional goal or two, but was called upon more often to do the heavy lifting in the corners and along the walls, in the hard work areas of an NHL hockey rink, freeing pucks for teammates to carry to the net.
Then Ward had his turn in the spotlight, scoring seven goals in 12 post season games for the Nashville Predators in the 2011 post season. It was just the ticket for a player entering unrestricted free agency. It would be the Washington Capitals that offered Ward a contract to his liking, a four year deal, and Ward joined the team bringing the hope that he could extend his 2011 playoff performance into four years of hard-nosed, opportunistic effort.
Two years later, Ward had 14 goals in 112 regular season games and two goals in 21 post-season games, one of them rather memorable. Still, it might not have been quite what Ward or fans had in mind when he arrived in Washington.
That changed in 2013-2014. One of the things that plagued Ward in his first two seasons in Washington was his inability to sustain good starts to seasons. He got out of the gate with a solid effort this past season, going 3-3-6 in his first ten-game segment and 6-1-7 in his second segment. He slowed down a bit in his third segment (0-4-4), but picked up in the fourth (3-3-6) and sustained that level of effort over the remainder of the season to finish with career highs in goals (24), assists (25), points (49), power play goals (6), power play assists (4) shorthanded goals (2, tied with his total in 2008-2009), game-winning goals (4, tied with his total from 2010-2011), and shooting percentage (18.0 percent).
Ward’s performance was the embodiment of the importance of secondary scoring. In 21 games in which he recorded a goal the Caps were 13-3-5; they were 21-10-7 in 38 games in which he recorded a point. He was part of what was the most consistently effective line for the Caps this season with Eric Fehr and Jason Chimera.
Ward was an especially effective teammate. Consider the two forwards with whom he spent most of his 5-on-5 ice time: Jason Chimera (84.3 percent of Ward’s 5-on-5 ice time) and Eric Fehr (36.5 percent). When paired with Ward, Chimera had a goals-for percentage of 53.8 percent, Fehr had a goals-for percent of 53.6. When apart from Ward those percentages dropped to 41.7 percent for Chimera and 45.2 percent for Fehr. However, Ward carried his 50-plus goals-for percent with him when he was apart from Chimera (57.1) and Fehr (54.2).
Fearless’ Take… Of 201 forwards recording at least 100 power play minutes this season, Joel Ward had the ninth best shooting percentage (27.3 percent). Ward had six goals on 22 shots in 142 minutes. He was very economical in his use of power play time as well. He had one power play goal per 23.8 minutes of power play time, 28th best in the league among those 201 forwards.
Cheerless’ Take… Sometimes it is better to be lucky than good. Not to say Joel Ward wasn’t good, but let’s not get too carried away. For instance, among Capital forwards playing in at least 10 games Joel Ward had the second lowest offensive zone start shares at 5-on-5 (44.8 percent, to Jason Chimera’s 43.8 percent). Despite the burden of low offensive zone start frequency he had the highest PDO among forwards playing at least 20 games with the Caps (102.7). That number was more the product of on-ice shooting percentage (10.3 percent, tops among that set of forwards) than on-ice save percentage (92.4 percent, seventh among those forwards). That 10.3 percent on-ice shooting percentage was itself largely a product of Ward’s own shooting percentage at 5-on-5 – 14.7 percent, best among those forwards and 20th of 292 forwards playing in at least 75 percent of their team’s games. Makes one wonder if Ward’s season wasn’t puck-lucky as much as plucky.
Odd Ward Fact… In six season coming into the 2013-2014 campaign Joel Ward had two career four-game point streaks. In the 2013-2014 season he had three such streaks, all of them coming in the 2014 portion of the season.
Game to Remember… November 1st versus Philadelphia. With the Capitals heading to Philadelphia to face the Flyers and Alex Ovechkin being held out of the lineup with an upper-body injury sustained against the Vancouver Canucks, someone had to step up in a big way for the Caps. On a night that was all Caps, a lot of guys did, but none stepped up higher than Joel Ward. With the Caps holding a 1-0 lead early in the second period, Ward picked up a loose puck behind the Flyers’ net. Skating the puck around into the corner to the right of goalie Steve Mason, Brayden Schenn tried to cut Ward off. Ward spun away leaving Schenn defending air. Ward walked out from behind the net and tried to stuff the puck under Mason. The first whack didn’t work, but the second one did to put the Caps up, 2-0.
Ward added a goal late in the second period when he completed a nifty passing sequence starting with Jason Chimera peeling the puck from the left wing wall and backhanding it to Mikhail Grabovski in the left wing circle. Grabovski backhanded a pass to Ward, and Ward snapped a wrist shot off the far post and in for his second of the game, giving the Caps a 5-0 lead. On a power play in the third period Ward completed his first career hat trick when he converted another backhand pass from Chimera, taking the pass at the top of the crease and snapping it past relief goalie Ray Emery to cap the scoring in a 7-0 Capitals win. As impressive as the hat trick was, Ward achieved it (two goals at even strength) despite an offensive zone start share of 20.0 percent. His Corsi-for percentage was 66.7 percent at 5-on-5. It was a solid night all around.
Game to Forget… April 4th versus New Jersey. With the Capitals’ playoff hopes hanging by a thread, the Caps went to New Jersey hoping to get a foothold for one last push to make the post-season. It ended up being nothing but frustration for Joel Ward. In what would be a tightly-played game Ward would record his third-lowest amount of ice time for the season (13:12). Part of the reason for that was that he took three minor penalties, his only game of the season in which he took more than one penalty. As it turned out he did not record a shot on goal in those 13 minutes (including 1:35 in power play ice time), and the Caps lost, 2-1.
In the end…
There were far more high points than lows in the play of Joel Ward this season. It was not the case of a player setting career bests in multiple categories from low baselines. Ward was part of – and arguably the most important part – of what was on more nights than not, it seemed, the Caps most effective forward line. He was a critical ingredient on a line that might have been more than the sum of its parts, something that could not be said for the rest of the team in the 2013-2014 season.
Photo: Jared Wickerham/Getty Images North America